Sunday, January 2, 2011

Catholicism Not So Catholic, APA Not So Atheist

A site called TheAmericanCatholic claims in its mission statement to be "an online community of Christians, motivated by a rich heritage of Catholic spiritual and intellectual tradition, seeking to engage American society and culture in pursuit of the common good."  As I've learned, though, for some religious people, "the common good" means nothing more than "defense of our own sect's members at all times regardless of the moral implications."

How else do you explain a site presumably dedicated to such longstanding Catholic institutions as monogamy (i.e., the moral rules that I actually practice and that I was condemning someone else for maliciously violating) summing up my C-SPAN2 appearance like so:

Todd Seavey, a libertarian, decided that a C-Span panel was an excellent time to go after Helen Rittelmeyer, a Catholic Conservative, who had broken up with him after a romantic relationship.  Rittelmeyer handled herself with aplomb under the onslaught and Seavey behaved like a Triple A Grade Jerk.

But I suspect it doesn't matter to them who has done what, really (details, schmetails) -- just spot the in-group members ("Catholic Conservative") and the out-group members ("a libertarian").  If you don't believe me, just try and imagine them condemning a female Catholic if she had made shocking on-air accusations about an ill-behaved libertarian/atheist male.  I don't recall the Bible having harsher words for people who expose evil on C-SPAN2 than for people who do evil, but, hey, I'm atheist -- not to mention a libertarian -- so what do I know, right?  Thou shalt not publicly shame a Catholic, I guess, especially a young female one. 

Rendering the site still more absurd, in the comments, some Catholic snake calling himself Blackadder -- perhaps the same contributor who posted the event summary above -- actually praised my friend Tim Carney, who must confuse the site contributors terribly by being both Catholic and (largely) libertarian, saying the following (with telling autobiographical note):

Thankfully not all libertarians are like Mr. Seavey.  After listening to the C-SPAN panel, I caught this episode of Bloggingheads (cause there's not a lot to do in my Mom's basement) with socially conservative libertarian Tim Carney.

I may be arguing with a fourteen year-old here for all I know, but it's never too early to ask people who
are headed down the wrong social/moral track questions like this: What are you labeling "socially conservative" if monogamy-defender Todd is your foe and his monogamy-flouting (and proudly, amorally game-playing) ex is your ostensible ally?  Have you even tried to think this through?  (Is anyone on this planet but me really trying to think anything through, I sometimes wonder?)  I hope and expect that Tim's behavior and moral standards are closer to mine than to my co-panelist's, and if there were a God, it would no doubt hope so as well. 

What do you imagine a good man's public confrontation with evil would look like, Catholic anti-Todd critics?  But speaking of Catholics with shaky morals: tomorrow, an aside about failed Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell.


In spite of religion's abject failure to produce more-moral-than-average people, two sessions at the American Philosophical Association convention that I attended in Boston last week could be taken as signs of a potential uptick in religiosity within academic philosophy. 

First, there was a session on the recent rediscovery of the early, overtly theological thesis written at a young age by the now-deceased John Rawls, one of the twentieth century's most influential political philosophers.  His weak (and socialistic) argument: moral responsibilities may rightly be seen to adhere to communities rather than individuals, since God himself is a community, being three people in one.  I think I see at least a trinity of reasons to disagree with that one statement, and one sign of philosophical maturity is knowing when an idea is not worth grappling with. 

Second, though, and more interestingly, Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt, best known for the skeptical and curmudgeonly volume On Bullshit, gave an amusing and frank autobiographical lecture (talking about how his thinking had been shaped by practical concerns, such as how much money Rockefeller University was showering on philosophers back in the 1960s), a lecture which ended with his prediction -- not necessarily his endorsement, mind you -- of a trend toward philosophy reinvigorating itself through an engagement with the big questions long relegated to religion, such as meaning, purpose, culture, and the shape of the good life.  He sees in the newfound pride some undergrads take in the traditional trappings of their respective faiths a hint that some of them may want to formalize their sentiments -- and (since academia always needs a big storehouse of bullshit in order to function) devote themselves to analyzing the centuries of neglected religious texts readily available on countless Big Questions.

I raised my hand to ask whether he thought philosophy's underlying (and necessary) skepticism and inclination to seek universalizable rules might put it permanently at odds with the commitment required for immersion in particular faiths, despite Frankfurt's longing to see philosophy infused with the same level of energy that sort of commitment brings. 

Daniel Dennett raised his hand to argue that real progress toward understanding the big questions is being made through cognitive science, robotics, and artificial intelligence, which ticked off Meredith Williams of Johns Hopkins, who talked to me later about her impatience with over-optimistic predictions about robots -- who are at this stage in history mere individual regurgitators of programming, not full, spontaneous persons produced through the complex and still-mysterious process of socialization.  When I suggested that one could (in principle, eventually) "grow" robot minds in ways as subtle and socialization-harnessing as meat minds, she pointed her thumb at me and said to another nearby philosopher, "He's giving me a hard time.  This is one of those robot guys."  I didn't mind, though I felt for a moment as if my faceplate might pop off. 

And I tweeted a tiny bit about the APA while I was at it, having just adopted that media tool during the convention, so (according to a session at APA on the epistemological implications of Twitter) I have already taken a step closer to outsourcing elements of my consciousness to the hivemind.  Bear with me throughout this "Month of Haters" as I gradually bring my multimedia situation up to twenty-first-century standards.  And follow me!  (In return, I will almost certainly follow you once I get my tech situation sorted out, if you seem to be a human being and so forth.  Again, bear with me.  Patience is a virtue both ancient and utilitarian.)

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