Religion & Public Life With Mark Silk

Religion & Public Life With Mark Silk

A Dreher spotting

posted by Mark Silk

Rod Dreher, late of this site, put in an appearance yesterday in his old newspaper by way of a review essay on Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s hot new book, American Grace: How Religion Unites and Divides Us. (Curiously, Dreher is identified only as a former Dallas Morning News columnist, with no mention of his current[?] position as director of publications at the Templeton Foundation.)

The essay focuses on the book’s central argument that Americans are way more tolerant of each others’ religions than they used to be. This is the occasion for Dreher at once to applaud the boon that such mutual acceptance constitutes for civil society and to lament the softening of orthodox religious belief that accompanies it. Most Americans think that there are many ways to heaven, and he doesn’t like it. By contrast, orthodox Christians and Muslims (for example)

may agree that both religions are worthy of
respect and tolerance, but they will insist that is not the same thing
as being equally true. To assert that both faiths could be equally true
is to radically diminish the truth claims of both, and therefore the
power of each faith to hold on to its believers. Few people will live or
die for a principle that they consider merely one opinion among many
equally truthful ones.

Why is this a bad thing? Dreher doesn’t quite come out and say so, but makes sufficiently clear that it’s because a decline in orthodoxy means a decline in religion generally–as evidenced by the rise of the Nones (the no-religion set). His case for orthodoxy is thus not about increasing the quantum of truth in the world, but about keeping the overall level of religiosity up–which seems like just another argument for good old American “religion in general.”

If you were interested solely in religious truth, wouldn’t you want your team to be as orthodox as hell and everyone else to be disinclined to live and die for theirs?
Update: For those of you interested in the whereabouts of Rod Dreher, he has informed me that he still works at Templeton but will not resume his blogging on its website. “It has been determined by senior management that blogging is incommensurate with my duties as JTF director of publications,” he writes. It’s a mystery to me why you’d hire a prominent writer and tell him to put down his pen, but then, I’ve never been very good at fathoming the minds of bosses.

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posted November 29, 2010 at 5:35 pm

The problem is that very few religious traditions differentiate between those principles one is ready to die for and those which one is willing to kill for. As long as most people feel required to believe the two are identical, I will keep on cheering for the Nones.

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Mark Silk

posted November 29, 2010 at 6:43 pm

I’d say the Christian tradition differentiated pretty well–through the age of the martyrs. Later, less well.

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posted November 29, 2010 at 7:58 pm

Insightful post and thanks for the pointers.
I often made similar observations about Rod’s Beliefnet blog posts. His arguments for religion often ended up being either belief in belief, or come dangerously close to the necessary fiction argument. I was puzzled by this as I felt it indicated a certain level of insecurity about the ultimate truth of his belief.
A particularly memorable post was his chastising a 13 year old at his Bar Mitzvah because the boy plainly stated his agnosticism. Rod felt the boy should have gone along to get along and lied, rather than be honest in his beliefs.

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posted November 29, 2010 at 8:20 pm

I always used to spar with him on his old site about what I feel is a false dichotomy. He seems to think that humanity’s only alternatives for moral reasoning are either one absolutist dogma or nihilism/moral relativism. Still, I get a kick out of his now furtive movements and infrequent appearances. He could be the Julian Assange of the Right!

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posted November 30, 2010 at 1:31 am

I don’t think he’s making the choice between absolutist dogma and moral relativism – I think he’s just saying that while tolerance is good, relativism about religious belief (or any other moral system) is ultimately contradictory, arbitrary, self-refuting, and nonsensical. He’s only castigating those who subscribe to a religion but then appropriate relativism.
Objectivism does not mean dogmatism. You can exist completely outside the religious world and believe that there is an external morality that is true, and even say you don’t even have complete knowledge of morality!
I think we need to acknowledge a difference between moral principles and moral facts – that is, if there is a moral principle to honor thy parents, in one society giving a dowry could fulfill this, and in other societies making sure they aren’t on the streets after retirement could fulfill it. But this does not mean that two competing moral principles could exist simultaneously. If you really are a skeptic (and many that claim to be might not actually be) than you must acknowledge that any other person/society’s conception of morality is valid (i.e. a society of child-torturers is just as valid as the opposite).
I also think it is perfectly valid to have religious belief, but at the same time recognize that in order to live in a secular, pluralistic society we need to reason about morality and laws independently of God. The morality you advocate can be the same as your religion, but non-believers will not conform to that based on the reasoning “God says so.”

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posted November 30, 2010 at 10:28 am

My impression of Rod from reading his blogs here for a couple of years is that he will continue to be a seeker. I can see why blogging on “Big Questions Online” might not be appropriate given his other duties there. Rod’s blogs were very freewheeling. He is clearly a very passionate guy, and sometimes I think he got caught up in the heat of the moment and got angry. Sometimes he might have overreacted. Which might be OK for a blog discussion, but not for the editor of an online magazine.
I feel that it is probably good for him to discontinue blogging for a while as it will make room in his life for new things, such as writing another book.

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Rod Dreher

posted November 30, 2010 at 11:59 am

Mark, you write:

Why is this a bad thing? Dreher doesn’t quite come out and say so, but makes sufficiently clear that it’s because a decline in orthodoxy means a decline in religion generally–as evidenced by the rise of the Nones (the no-religion set). His case for orthodoxy is thus not about increasing the quantum of truth in the world, but about keeping the overall level of religiosity up–which seems like just another argument for good old American “religion in general.”

If you were interested solely in religious truth, wouldn’t you want your team to be as orthodox as hell and everyone else to be disinclined to live and die for theirs?
A few things, to clarify. I was not using this essay in a secular newspaper to argue for my own views of what constitutes orthodoxy. As Will grasps, I was trying to make a point about the nature of religious truth, and how the (unconscious) assumption that all religious truth is relative to the subject inevitably means the loss of any sense of orthodoxy. As I said in the essay, if you believe that religion is more about what we humans say about God, and that achieving social harmony is the greatest good, then you won’t really see what the problem is with this. But if you believe that religious/metaphysical truths proclaimed by revealed religion (e.g., Christianity, Judaism, Islam) are more or less immutable, then you have every reason to be concerned about this turn of events in our culture.
My concern, Mark, is not that religion in general will decline, but that religious truth will cease to exist as a meaningful concept. If whatever you choose to believe is as true as what any other person chooses to believe, then why take any of it seriously? Men and women over the centuries have died for the truth of the beliefs they proclaimed — and they have also lived and done great things for those beliefs. Why? Because they understood that it was critically important to get these things right, because getting them right meant to live as God wanted us to live. To take a contemporary example: I find the so-called “Prosperity Gospel” so popular in American Christian circles to be an abomination and a perversion of Christian truth. If there is no such thing as truth in a non-emotivist sense — that is, an objective standard by which all Christian belief and conduct is to be judged — then on what grounds can I condemn the Prosperity Gospel? On what grounds can I tell a Prosperity Gospeller to put that garbage aside, and return to right belief, and right practice? More seriously, in the Deep South, where I grew up, many Christians of a prior generation believed that black people were inferior, and ought to be segregated and oppressed. They honestly thought this was what faith required of them. How could one have made an effective argument based on the Gospel that the practice of American apartheid was wicked and anti-Christian if society believed that all religious truths were equally true? I’m just old enough to remember older people complaining that preachers ought to stay out of politics, and by that meaning not that right-wing Evangelical pastors should keep it to themselves, but that these meddling Yankee and Negro clerics agitating for civil rights should realize that religion is a private matter, and ought not to be brought to bear on public affairs, in part because it can only bring about disharmony.
In short, a religion that abandons particularity for the sake of comity is a religion that loses its prophetic power to bind and to loose. This is something people don’t often think about. This is the down side of the welcome religious tolerance and comity we now have.
As an Orthodox Christian, I’m less worried about people who say “There is no God” than I am about people who say, “There is a God, and He is whoever you want him to be.” In many ways, confirmed atheists have a more acute sense of what’s at stake in religion than do many Christians. I remember starting to read the Bible as a teenager, and being genuinely shocked that we Christians said we believed these things were true, but we didn’t live by them, and didn’t really seem to try. Christianity seemed to me like a matter of social custom and psychological self-help/comfort. I rejected it. Later in life, as an adult, I came to have a different understanding of Christianity, and eventually became a Christian after reading Kierkegaard, and grasping how radical Christianity is. By no means am I a good Christian! But I hope that I will always work to keep in front of me the importance of living as if the words of the Gospel were really true, and not being absorbed into the bourgeois mush of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.
I don’t see any real contradiction between believing that Christianity is true, and that the version of Christianity I accept is the fullness of truth, while at the same time respecting the human dignity of others to make their own choices — even as I affirm, by default, that their choices are wrong. As Will points out, we live in a pluralistic society, one in which living in peace and fraternity with one’s neighbors requires charity and civility towards them, even if one thinks they are profoundly wrong about important things. Unfortunately, holding on to one’s own particular beliefs while maintaining good relations with everybody else is a lot easier to work out in theory than in life as it is actually lived by most people. I do honestly believe that we have achieved the blessing of (relative) religious comity at the cost of a sense that orthodoxy (= “right belief”) matters. As I said in that essay, I am myself a beneficiary of the loosening of these cultural strictures, given that I am twice a convert. The same cultural shift that made it possible for me to convert and not to lose friends or family makes it more likely that my own children will leave the religion in which I’ve raised them. I cannot imagine rejecting my children because they’ve rejected my religion — and yet, as research cited by Prof. Eric Kaufmann of Birkbeck College shows, those religions or rather religious communities who do take orthodoxy very seriously, and that impose a high social cost on those who leave the fold, are the faiths/faith communities most likely to endure through postmodernity.
MH, the approach I took on my old Beliefnet blog was one geared not to an audience of Christians, or Orthodox Christians, but an approach driven by the knowledge that my audience was quite diverse. If I sounded uncertain at times, it may have been because I really was uncertain (I tried to make a point of being up front with my readers about things I struggle with in my faith), but it was more often the case that I was trying to engage my readers in thought experiments, or at least to get them to consider that the point I was trying to make was not a particularly Christian one, but a more general one. About that bar mitzvah kid, I still believe what he did was a travesty, and a sign of immaturity. In my own case, one Easter during my teenager years, I refused to go to services with my family because I wasn’t sure I believed in any of it. I thought I was making a brave stand on principle. Looking back, I was just being a jerk. It wouldn’t have killed me to have gone, and sang the hymns, and stood there as if I believed it, knowing in my heart I believed something else. It would have meant a lot to my family to have had me there, and it would have cost me exactly nothing. The bar mitzvah kid could have gone through the ritual, and given a speech in which he discussed the value of Jewish tradition, or somesuch thing, without affirming a belief in God. Instead, he chose to rub the noses of his parents and his community in the fact that he rejected the God whose worship is at the core of their identity. I can’t respect that at all.
In a similar way, I have been present at mixed gatherings when certain Christians felt that it was hugely important to point out that they themselves believe things that others present reject. It seemed to me in those contexts to be not a matter of bravely asserting the Truth, but rather one of spiritual or intellectual pride. That’s what it was with me, when I refused to go to Easter services, and that’s what I believe it was with the bar mitzvah boy. Sometimes we bow our heads in prayer at gatherings not because we believe in God, but because we want to respect those present. I was once present when a Muslim chaplain gave a prayer, and I bowed my head not because I am a Muslim, but because I respected that man and his co-religionists present, and because I respect God, and believe that he would not have been pleased by me making a show of my rejection of Islam by refusing to observe a social courtesy. Obviously if I had been asked to affirm Islam, I would have been obliged to say no — even at the cost of my life. For teenagers, though, given how egotistical they are, the idea of humility and respect for others often strikes them as an intolerable blow against their personal integrity and authenticity. Like I said, it’s immature.
I won’t be checking back on this blog for responses, but I want to thank Mark for his attention to my essay, and for the opportunity to respond.

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posted November 30, 2010 at 1:09 pm

How I miss Rod’s blog on Beliefnet!!!!!!!!!!!!!As an Orthodox Christian, I found a voice for my faith’s unique’s take on many issues. I wish he would find an outlet for his writings again!!!!

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posted November 30, 2010 at 1:27 pm

I miss Rod because he is unapoligetically cantankerous and he was a very prolific blogger. He also had the guts to step off the party line as the conservative movement has veered toward facism and lunacy. Be safe, Rod, wherever you are out there, and if the Swedes trump up a bs arrest warrant for you, you and Mr. Assange can stay in my safe house in the suburban Chicago region. It’s an obscure, and virtually unpoliced corner of unicorporated northern Cook County not so unlike Gaza. (Don’t worry, we do have plenty of consumer goods here, unsullied by tunnel dirt or Hamas profiteering.

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posted November 30, 2010 at 1:49 pm

Rod, thanks for the unexpected response and I understand you won’t see this. For anyone who didn’t see the Bar Mitzvah boy thread, here’s a pointer:

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Mark Silk

posted December 1, 2010 at 10:13 am

A brief reply to Rod’s long comment: I can appreciate that the quantum of orthodoxy in a society has pluses as well as minuses. And I suppose one might attempt to weigh the two in order to determine whether there was a net social cost or gain. It might even be the case that more orthodoxy in general could lead to more religious truth in particular. But to take the example proffered, I haven’t noticed any shortage of criticism of the Prosperity Gospel in our pluralistic, religiously tolerant society. Indeed, the secular news media (which are not supposed to embrace any particular religious orthodoxy) regularly take out after prosperity gospel preachers. Perhaps it’s because I’m an historian by training, but I simply don’t share Rod’s anxiety about the effects of “moral relativism,” whatever that exactly means. Over time and place, social norms and values change (and remain constant) for reasons that have little or nothing to do with the degree of elite or popular belief in the idea of timeless moral absolutes.

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posted December 1, 2010 at 12:31 pm

My issue with Rod’s anxiety is that I never understand his basis for it. If religious beliefs are true, then such truths would win out because an all powerful being will ensure that outcome. If people stop believing them, then they must have been false and were thus self refuting.
I do understand a utilitarian view of religion (good for crowd control, but truth unknown) resulting in such worries. With that mindset you could see a society falling victim to the Tinkerbelle effect and no longer believing a necessary fiction. But with that view any religion (even MTD) is fine.
I suppose the same logic applies to insincere professions of faith. A God automatically knows they are false and would likely view them poorly. So the faithful should want to avoid inducing people to make such claims, even for social convenience.

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posted December 3, 2010 at 11:03 am

“If you really are a skeptic (and many that claim to be might not actually be) than you must acknowledge that any other person/society’s conception of morality is valid (i.e. a society of child-torturers is just as valid as the opposite).”
And yet it is telling that the exchange on the Templeton blogs that may have well caused the termination of Rod’s blogging hinged on a comparison of female genital mutilation and ritual male circumcision. A poster there pointed out that many who condemn the mutilation of females are quite accepting of the cutting of males. The poster, if I recall, pointed out that there was a striking dissonance in the argument that seemed to be based more on WHO was doing the particular mutilation rather than WHO was being mutilated.
At that point all hell broke loose over there. But I think the point is quite relevant…religion can be bent to pretty much any form the practitioner wishes, and the underlying texts/scriptures of said religion can be interpreted to support it. As Rod points out above, at one time it was considered part and parcel of the Christian faith in this country that slavery was endorsed and sanctioned by God (see the exposition of one Dr. Richard Furman for an example from that timeframe), while at the same time a smaller but growing group of Christians held that slavery was immoral based on texts from the same holy book.
So, with respect to the person’s comment above, skepticism and dogmatic religion seem to be oarsmen in the same boat.

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Another Mark

posted December 27, 2010 at 8:41 pm

Mark, your brief reply was very well said. Dreher is quite a word smith, but you cut right to the heart. Bravo.

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posted December 28, 2010 at 9:51 pm

Thanks for the update on the whereabouts of Rod. I’ve missed his blog! I’ve missed the folks who used to hang around his blog even more!

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posted May 6, 2011 at 6:45 am

A dreher spotting.. Very nice :)

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